Emoji Café gives Kazakhs with hearing loss opportunity to thrive

NUR-SULTAN – Emoji Café, which only employs individuals with hearing difficulties, is the idea of Azamat Bazylov. An anaesthesiologist-resuscitator at Nur-Sultan Oncology Centre, he sold his house in the country and took a loan to start the social project.

Café owner Azamat Bazylov in checkered shirt with the staff.

“I was once listening to the radio and heard the famous proverb ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Soon afterwards, I attended a business training of social entrepreneur Emin Askerov, whose project GreenTAL gave work to many people with disabilities. I was deeply moved and decided to also open a business that would be helpful to the disadvantaged,” he said. 

Bazylov wanted to offer the opportunity to those with hearing difficulties to lead a normal life with a normal job. The café, which opened more than a month ago, employs 16 people – three from the capital and others from Aktobe, Almaty and Petropavlovsk. Four job openings are available. 

“I chose to focus on people with hearing loss because my own cousin is deaf. We were brought up together by our grandmother, but he was the one who made me the way I am today. Few deaf people ever get a job and, if they do, the work they have to do is very harsh. My cousin’s kidneys failed due to the work he had and now he is nearly bound to the hospital bed receiving haemodialysis (artificial blood purification),” he said.

Bazylov ensures each employee receives proper training before starting his/her job. A professional barista is teaching the soon-to-be barista all the tips to making great coffee. His family is also very supportive. His siblings help with managing administrative issues, while his mother teaches baking skills to the kitchen staff. 

“Going to the café is akin to being in a foreign country; you point to the menu items you want and try to explain yourself in gestures. In fact, that is why I called this place Emoji. With emojis, you can express your thoughts without using a single word,” he said. 

The café has an extensive menu. The staff is given the freedom to prepare a variety of dishes to decide what kind of food they like making the most. Currently, they serve both European and Kazakh dishes and make cakes to order. Pizza is an especially popular item. 

“When I looked at the café from the outside, the bright sign ‘Smile! Special people are serving you’ instantly grabbed my attention. Indeed, I found it hard not to smile and feel proud that there are people in our country who work towards making our society more inclusive, who give others the chance to be happy,” said a visitor. 

Emoji, with a 120-person capacity, is a popular place among locals. The café regularly caters banquets with a 60-guest limit. 

“People with hearing loss are also common visitors; they are happy they can be at ease in the café. In fact, one of the regular customers with hearing difficulties eventually started being one of our employees,” said Bazylov.

The prices are low, as the owner said he wanted to make sure that anyone can come to the café and feel comfortable. Lunch sets, for instance, are only 800 tenge (US$2).

“I am planning to eventually change the design of the place. Some visitors complain it does not match the name or theme of the project. I have other plans for the café, too. I am looking out for sponsors and asking people to help, but currently no one is responding. You see, I would like to integrate electronic menus to enable smooth communication between the staff and the customers and I would also like to add buttons to the tables that would be connected to vibrating bracelets to indicate which table requires service. I really hope someone will eventually respond and provide support,” said Bazylov. 

He plans to open a second café closer to the city business centre when the first location is profitable and, eventually, similar eateries around the country. 

“People with hearing difficulties are in need of a job not only in the capital,” he said.